In January 2022, when the fifth Scream The movie came out, it had been over a decade since someone had last donned the Ghostface mask and terrorized teenagers with threatening phone calls and a deftly wielded hunting knife. This movie, the first one Scream not directed by the series’ now-deceased writer Wes Craven, it had plenty of new developments to cover the genre it did so well: the rise of “elevated” horror, the tired formulas of legacy sequels, and how landline-based killer it can work in the smartphone era. The result was enough for the executives to give the green light Scream VI, which is rushing to multiplexes just 14 months later. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sequel has less to say.
Scream has always thrived on metatextuality: In the opening scene of the original 1996 film, an unseen operator begins asking a high school student (played by Drew Barrymore) over the phone about horror movies. The film allowed Craven, a master of the slasher form, and screenwriter Kevin Williamson to poke fun at the genre’s tired structure while delivering a successful version of it. Last year, I was initially wary that the franchise’s new leadership, the Ready or not Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett wouldn’t be able to recreate the tone of such a voice-based classic. But I was reassured by their point of view, which actually had fun at the expense of the rabid internet movie nerds that populate Reddit of the last generation.
[Read: The newest Scream movie skewers fandom itself]
Scream VI retains Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett, along with screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, but lacks the agility of the previous films to find new angles in the world of horror. Quick recovery is partly to blame – not quite it happened within the genre in the time it’s taken for it to really be commented on – but the other problem is the prosaic nature of a sixth film. Before Screamsatirized the tropes of a typical slasher sequel (Scream 2), the grand finale of a trilogy (Scream 3), the restart (Scream 4), and the legacy sequel that brings back old cast members and mixes them with new characters (last year’s confusingly titled Scream).
All Scream VI indeed it has something to do with it moving its cast to New York, following the example of other series that have done the same. (I’m thinking mostly of classic camp Friday 13thu Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.) After the bloodbath of the last film, Sam Carpenter (Melissa Barrera) and her half-sister, Tara (Jenna Ortega), have moved to the Big Apple, where Tara and their movie-loving pal Chad (Mason Gooding) and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy). Brown) attend college. The crew has made some new friends, but they’re still nursing old wounds when, surprise, surprise, another Ghostface killer shows up and starts killing co-workers all over town—while implicating Sam in the murders.
Scream VI it doesn’t have the same “legacy” appeal as its predecessor. Hayden Panettiere (who gave his best performance Scream 4) makes a welcome return as smart aleck Kirby, now an FBI agent on the Ghostface case, but Courteney Cox is one of the only cast members from the original film this time around, reprising his role as tough tabloid reporter Gale Weathers. Instead of featuring a series of character iterations, the film evokes nostalgia from its script, about a franchise-obsessed killer who collects memorabilia from notorious murders and leaves them at his own crime scenes. It’s a silly thread, but an obvious way for the film to look back on its history, perhaps looking for some emotional weight.
At one point, Kirby and a New York City detective (played by Dermot Mulroney, obviously here to have a good time) examine a bulletin board covered in former suspects (from Scream movies), looking for clues. But the pair might as well be Hollywood producers trying to track down a new lead in an outdated plot, admiring footage of past Ghostfaces instead of researching original material. The smiling faces of actors such as Timothy Olyphant, Laurie Metcalf, Emma Roberts and Skeet Ulrich provide an entertaining road map through a grand and sad story. They do not, however, point the characters or viewers to a clear path forward.
Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett remain gifted in the set-pieces, and Scream VI has more than a few arresting moments. The opening sequence (always a highlight for these movies) features a fun switcheroo and a plum for the Ready or not star Samara Weaving. A clever series of murders takes place in two adjacent apartment buildings and makes excellent use of the spatial geography of New York’s confined housing. And an extended, suspenseful subway scene is a blast. But there is not enough juice behind the scene. The Scream The films have thrived because they’ve always stayed one step ahead of their source material—but as the franchise grows more bloated, they risk becoming their own punch line.